Sunday, January 1, 2012

Deadly Obsession: Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO

by guest contributor R.D. Finch

"What's that old Oscar Wilde thing? 'Each man kills the thing he loves...' That I think is a very natural phenomenon, really."
Alfred Hitchcock, in a 1963 interview

In his fifty-five year long career in films, Alfred Hitchcock directed sixty-seven movies. At least a dozen of these are bona fide masterpieces, and about an equal number are excellent movies that fall just short of the masterpiece mark. By any measure that's an impressive record, one unequaled by any other filmmaker I can think of. Even more impressive is that Hitchcock's pictures are not rarefied works of art of interest mainly to aesthetes and film scholars, but full-blooded movies that appeal equally to ordinary filmgoers looking for accomplished entertainments and to cinephiles looking for an intellectually and artistically stimulating film-viewing experience. Of all Hitchcock's pictures, none managed to combine these two modes—entertainment and art—so skillfully, so intriguingly, and so pleasingly as his 1958 film Vertigo.

 Most people are familiar with the plot of Vertigo. A retired San Francisco police detective, John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), psychologically traumatized after a rooftop chase to apprehend a criminal ends badly, is targeted as a dupe by his old college friend Gavin Elster, who exploits Scottie's crippling fear of heights to bring off an intricate scheme to murder his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). The film's plot is a clever one and since this is a mystery thriller with hints of the supernatural (can Madeleine really be the reincarnation of her ancestor, as she believes?), neither the audience nor Scottie realizes what is really happening until quite far into the film. This allows the viewer's understanding of the situation to be manipulated, just as Scottie's is, to create a mood of suspense and, after the truth is revealed to the viewer about three-quarters of the way through the film, for that suspense to be prolonged as the film proceeds in a completely unexpected direction right up to its shock ending.

Such a narrative strategy requires that the viewer's reactions be precisely guided at every turn, and nobody was more expert at this than Hitchcock. Well known for his need for absolute control over all aspects of his films from conception to release, Hitchcock was by temperament the epitome of the film auteur, the director who puts his stamp on every element of his work. The way he accomplished this was by meticulous attention to detail. Because each shot was storyboarded in advance, the final film essentially needed no editing and thus was immune to tampering with by producers and studio executives. Like most filmmakers who began by directing silents, Hitchcock viewed cinema storytelling as essentially a visual process, with dialogue, music, and sound used to augment the film's imagery. Because the way he chose to show the action—placement and movement of the camera, the use of visual effects that formed his famous set pieces, the exact way images succeeded one another to form a spatial and narrative continuum—was the product of his own imagination, his films always seem expressions of a personal and very distinctive vision. Many directors have made movies in the Hitchcock style, but I can't think of a single one of these films that on close viewing could actually be mistaken for the work of the master himself.

Because of the convoluted and deceptive nature of its plot, Vertigo is even more dependent on Hitchcock's almost obsessive attention to detail as a means of controlling audience response than any other film he made. But in Vertigo he uses his working methods as much more than merely a practical means of telling a story in his own way. He amplifies his control-freak approach to directing until it becomes an all-encompassing aesthetic used to suggest a great deal more than is apparent in what at first seems little more than a deftly contrived suspense melodrama. It is this effect of using every device in his vast panoply of cinematic tricks to evince the complex psychological and thematic undertones of the film that makes Vertigo Hitchcock's greatest achievement. It's a haunting film that can be watched again and again and still continue to entertain and thrill and deliver new revelations.

Perhaps the most powerful and resonant thing about the film is the way Hitchcock uses repetition to emphasize the idea of doubling. Elements in the first part of the film recur later in the film, and elements in the later part of the film mirror those in the first part, giving the film a strange pattern of symmetrical associations. Scottie seeks out places where he saw Madeleine in the beginning of the film and revisits them later in the film: the missions, the florist's shop, the museum, Ernie's restaurant. He watches Judy at her hotel window the same way he watched Madeleine at her hotel window earlier. His transformation of Judy into Madeleine exactly duplicates Elster's transformation of Judy to pass her off as his wife.

Near the end of the picture Hitchcock expresses the complete fusion of Madeleine and Judy, of past and present, of Scottie's memories and his dreams, in the most striking of several memorable set pieces in the film—a long, passionate kiss between Scottie and Judy after he sees her for the first time as the fully re-created Madeleine. The camera swirls, Scottie and Judy swirl, and the room appears to revolve around them. The background fades from Judy's room to the stable where Scottie and Madeleine kissed for the last time and finally back to Judy's room again, while Bernard Herrmann's glorious music—clearly inspired by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde—surges and pulses in unison with the intense emotions of the passage. It's the most rapturously erotic scene in a Hitchcock movie since the kiss in Notorious.

Hitchcock was famous for his lack of interest in the acting of his performers, and for saying that actors should be treated like cattle, that is, prodded into doing what he needed for the shot he was working on. This was perhaps a holdover from his silent days, when facial expressions, body language, and movement were more important than character development and line delivery because the director essentially created the performance visually, through the staging and editing of the film. This is one reason experienced theater actors often found working with Hitchcock such a frustrating experience. Yet for all this, in Vertigo he gets two remarkable performances from his stars.

It is well documented that Kim Novak was not Hitchcock's first choice to play Madeleine/Judy; Vera Miles was. But by the time he was ready to begin shooting, Miles was pregnant and so somebody else had to be cast. I have no idea how he hit on the idea of casting Kim Novak, but I did notice that just as Elster and Scottie transform Judy into the image of Madeleine, Hitchcock almost seems to transform Kim Novak into an uncanny image of Grace Kelly, right down to her hair and makeup, and her accent and diction. I can't help wondering if one of the reasons Vertigo seems to be Hitchcock's most personal film is his own understanding of the compulsion behind Scottie's Pygmalion-like behavior.

At any rate, Novak, who under the right conditions could be a much better actress than she is generally given credit for, does a tremendous job as the mysterious, spaced-out Madeleine. But her more demanding incarnation as Judy is even more impressive. If Madeleine is an enigma, Judy is a fully defined character. Hitchcock and his writer, Samuel Taylor, make a daring narrative decision that happens soon after Scottie meets Judy. The conventional thing to do would have been to conceal the truth about the murder plot from the audience until the end then reveal it to the viewer and Scottie at the same time, in the kind of twist ending typical of films of this kind. Instead Hitchcock and Taylor devise a situation in which Judy writes a letter to Scottie explaining everything to him then impetuously tears it up before he sees it.

The audience is now aware of the true nature of events even if Scottie isn't, and the entire tone of the movie has changed. Now that we know the truth, the point of view shifts much more in Judy's direction. The crux of suspense is no longer what really happened, but how long will it take Scottie to figure it out and what will be his reaction when he does. What all this means for Novak's performance is that she can no longer play her character as an enigma, but must externalize the conflict Judy feels about what she has done to Scottie and the ambivalence she feels about his controlling attitude. Novak's role immediately becomes much more demanding, and she handles the requirements of those demands admirably. If only she looked less like a caricature of a rather common shopgirl!

But the real center of the movie is James Stewart's Scottie, a character who inspires Stewart to give one of the most remarkable performances of his career. We tend to think of the screen persona of James Stewart as that of an optimistic, boyish everyman. But in truth Stewart's characters often had a dark side to them, a willfulness that threatened to cause the passion of their emotions to spill over into obsession. We tend to forget this because until Vertigo, even though that dark side might threaten to take over whatever character Stewart was playing—George Bailey or even Jefferson Smith for Frank Capra or one of the revenge-driven men in the Westerns he made with Anthony Mann, for instance—at the end of the film his character always managed to pull back from the brink before he went over the edge. Hitchcock himself perceived the latent darkness in Stewart's screen image and used it as a sort of dangerous recklessness in the characters Stewart played in Rope and Rear Window. But in Vertigo, for the first and only time I can think of, Stewart's character is completely overcome by the darkness in him and propels the film to a catastrophic conclusion.

During the course of the picture, Stewart must convincingly go through a series of changes that illustrate the stages of the disintegration of Scottie's personality. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the familiar James Stewart. He has experienced a traumatizing event, his life has been drastically changed by it, and he must live with the handicap of disabling acrophobia. But his resilience and sense of proportion intact, he seems able to cope with the changes in his circumstances. As he reluctantly follows Madeleine, he finds his detective's curiosity about this mysterious woman aroused. Curiosity soon turns to fascination and then to passionate love. At this point he is already beginning to lose his objectivity as he desperately tries to rationalize Madeleine's delusional behavior.

After Madeleine's death, he is a broken man, a state he conveys in his scenes in the mental hospital through his dazed expression and total lack of affect. If he seems to have regained a precarious sense of balance after several months of treatment, he begins to lose it as soon as he first spots Judy. As he grows closer to her, he progressively loses control of himself until he has become an emotional juggernaut moving inexorably toward the annihilation of both himself and the object of his love. This idea that external and internal forces could collude in such a way to transform a person's ego into an unstoppable engine of destruction is a chilling one indeed.

By the film's conclusion, Hitchcock has carefully guided us to a place where he is at last able to make the point he has been aiming for all along: the fine distinction between passion and obsession, between real life and dreams, between creation and destruction. The death of Judy at the end makes real the fake suicide that was staged for Scotty's benefit earlier. What began as make-believe has taken on a terrible life of its own and become reality, a reality born of the destructive potential when love overpowers reason.

A nearly life-long cinephile, R. D. Finch lives in rural Northern California. His favorite films are the classics (roughly 1930-1980), both American and foreign. His blog,The Movie Projector, was honored with two CiMBA Awards in 2010 from the Classic Movie Blog Association: Best Film Review (Musical or Comedy) for his post Love Me Tonight (1932), and Best Classic Movie Article for his piece The Best Fred Astaire Musicals Without Ginger Rogers. 


  1. "He amplifies his control-freak approach to directing until it becomes an all-encompassing aesthetic used to suggest a great deal more than is apparent in what at first seems little more than a deftly contrived suspense melodrama." - I love this, and such a great cornerstone to this impressive essay.

  2. What an excellent kick-off to the Month of Vertigo. Well done, Mr. Finch!

  3. I think this is the best film about obsession ever filmed and Hitchcock, did a wonderful job in this film, taking the story and circling back to the same moment, again and again ...

    Very enjoyable read..

  4. This is a spectacular piece! You could not have asked for a better lead-off for the month!

  5. Great post! It gives me a greater appreciation of this film which, to be honest, I never ranked among my favorite Hitchcock movies. After reading your review, I'd like to give it another try.

  6. Your eloquent and intriguing portrayal of one of Hitchcock’s career defining films is an excellent start to this Month Of Vertigo. You have perfectly captured the notion of the film’s ability to appeal to both film critics and film fans, and the dual nature of the storytelling. The mystery works on a different level for the first time viewer but is no less fascinating for the sixth time viewer (ah, to be a first time viewer again, and again). The exaggerated hair, makeup and wardrobe of Judy has always seemed to me a reference to Eliza Doolittle (intentional or not). If Eliza had returned to her old life after Henry Higgins had won his bet, she might have tried desperately to live as the lady she briefly was, without a lifetime of naturally occurring grace and style the result might have been the same. The story doesn’t allow for a portrayal of Judy’s trauma once she has witnessed the murder and been abandoned by Elster, but her state of shock could be reflected in her willingness to participate in Scottie’s scheme.

  7. So many of Hitchcock’s many films were so engaging and popular (“full-blooded movies”) – and, on top of that, he’d created for himself the public persona of a wily jokester. These may be some of the reasons it took years (and the French) before the world at large comprehended his astonishing talent. This is such a finely considered and well-written piece, R.D., that it seems to me you’ve made the case for critic Robin Wood’s claim that Alfred Hitchcock is cinema’s Shakespeare.

    I’ve read that Kim Novak may not have been as much the “second choice” as legend has it. Hitchcock may have already realized that Vera Miles, though a good actress, lacked “star power." Meanwhile, Novak was already Paramount’s first choice. Kim Novak has often said that she identified with the dilemma of Judy who was molded and re-molded into the fantasy creature of others. In both cases, Judy (the too-tacky shopgirl) and Kim (the Hollywood commodity), those others were determinedly blind to the person trapped under the make-up and artifice required to fabricate a 'dream woman.'

    Thank you, R.D., for penetrating observations on Hitchcock and VERTIGO. You say so much with a combination of eloquence and economy that is rare.

  8. wow!! a very insightful and lucid analysis...U R so right about Hitch and visuals based on his beginnings in silents!!

  9. Wonderful job - I found myself engrossed with your own detail and insights regarding this great film. I think you hit upon something important when you mentioned Bernard Hermann's music being reminiscent of "Tristan and Isolde" - more specifically it seems to reference the "Liebestod" aria, which translates as "love death". For me "Vertigo" has always invoked the Jungian idea of the hero seeking his anima - the missing female side of his personality - which he will often project onto a woman who is a reasonable facsimile of this inner ideal. Often this can lead to destruction or an erotic consummation in death. This emotional dynamic, which is found often in great art of the Romantic era (Wagner being one example) is probably one of the reasons that "Vertigo" is as haunting and timeless as it is. With all of his technical genius and personal quirks, Hitchcock created a film of great hypnotic power that's a kind of siren's song for the viewer - mysterious and beautiful, a kind of waking dream. The story is the hero's attempt to live out at the earthly level the anima, which is not of this world. It's an obsession that will always find it's goal just out of reach.

  10. Amazing look at the complexities of a film that continues to make people wonder and explore. The way you describe the intention of the director with the execution of the actors, especially James Stewart, in one of his greatest performances, is just wonderful.

    While I do most of my appreciations at the Classic Film Union, I will come back and read the next contribution.

  11. Excellent, R.D., really excellent, insightful article. I was most intrigued by your statement: "Hitchcock and his writer, Samuel Taylor, make a daring narrative decision..." Vertigo could very well have become a good, but rather average thriller without that daring change of perspective. Scottie's obsession is done so well, a characteristic that might have been way overdone by a lesser director. I remember hearing Hitchcock say that Scottie was making the girl perform a reverse striptease for him, not taking things off, but putting them on to fulfill his desire. Fascinating. Kudos for a wonderful piece of work, R.D.

  12. R.D. - Just a magnificent essay. A great piece to start off the month of Vertigo. I love your opening paragraph on how Hitchcock took popular entertainment and created high end pop art. I have come to admire Stewart as actor more and more lately. He can portray a multitude of characters either likable Mr. Middle America types or more darker, bitter and cynical types, and do so convincingly. There does not seem to be any effort on his part, it just comes across naturally. I also think Novak, a limited actress, gave one of her best performances here.

  13. What a wonderful essay, and a great way to start off the month! I remember the first time I saw Vertigo for a film class. As the film was going along, I started to wonder if I really was supposed to suspend disbelief and buy into the supernatural plot line, and then, like you said, it took a totally different turn. It was only my second encounter with Hitchcock and Stewart, and my mind was blown. I loved how you mentioned that this film has everything to satisfy the hardcore cinephile as well as the scholar. It's definitely one of those films that I get something new out of every viewing.
    Fantastic work!

  14. Thanks to everyone for the kind comments and for contributing your own insights into "Vertigo." Thank you Eve for inviting me to participate in "A Month of VERTIGO." It was a real privilege to be able to kick this event off and a challenge to write on such a revered and complex film. I'm eagerly anticipating the rest of the posts and expect to find some intriguing reading here for the rest of the month.

  15. R.D.: I really enjoyed reading this insightful article. I especially liked your analysis of Novak's performance. What a great way to start off this month-long series.

  16. Excellent essay! This is a wonderful beginning blog to what most certainly will be a wonderful blog event. Mr. Finch, you have a way with words. I was completely intrigued throughout the essay. I loved your appraisal of Novak's performance (a characterization that many people I know feel was strangely off) but I always felt was perfect for what the film demanded. You are right that her character of Judy is incredibly well defined. Madeleine may be a "ghost" but Judy is indeed grounded. Also your comments on Jimmy Stewart were really great. He does start off as the Jimmy we all know, but by the end he transforms into someone we have never seen before. I never thought of it that way.

    Great job R.D. Finch! You set the tone for a great month. Cannot wait to read more about Vertigo, along with your work as well. :)

  17. R.D., a very-thoughtful essay on my favorite Hitchcock film. I especially liked your description of the "double" theme achieved through reptitious events. But I there's even more of a pattern in VERTIGO--a circular one. It starts with Saul Bass's opening credits of an eyeball dissolving into swirling (cicular-like) ellipses. The plot then begins with Scottie watching a comrade fall to his death and ends with Scottie watching Judy fall to her death. It is indeed reptitious, but the begining and ending come together so it forms a circle. With the two progonists caught in this pattern, there is no way for their doomed love (if that's what it is) to progress. Reference your point about Scottie's "disintegration," I agree for the most part. However, I think Scottie is damaged goods from the start. He doesn't appear to have any real friends other than Midge. In fact, though most has written about obssession in VERTIGO, I always find myself hoping that Scottie and Judy--two very damaged souls--will somehow find happiness together. Unfortunately, they're caught in an endless circle of deceit, so tragedy is the only possible resoloution.

  18. This is a fabulous essay and a great start to a very exciting event. Like so many, "Vertigo" is my favorite film. I fear I will never have all of my questions answered, but that's what makes this film so much fun. Great article and so looking forward to the rest!

  19. R.D., now that I've had a chance to read your opening blog post about VERTIGO, I wholeheartedly agree with all the kudos that has come your way! It's one of those films that took time to grow on me over the years, but it was worth it. It's a compelling departure in many ways for both Stewart and Novak, and I've always wished they'd made ever more films together after making VERTIGO and BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE. Whether Hitchcock's initial yen to have Vera Miles as the star of VERTIGO was real or just a publicity stunt, I think Novak gave an Oscar-worthy performance in her unpredictable dual role. Most importantly, my heart went out to the characters, including Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge. All the characters had such beautifully-felt, thought-provoking shadings in their respective characters. Great post, and a perfect opening volley for A Month of VERTIGO!

  20. I have to agree with everyone else. A great start to the month, and I am sure we will all learn more about this amazing film as the days go by.

    I will hold off until next month to watch it again!

  21. A great posting, R.D. I've only seen this film for the first time in the last few weeks, on the big screen (I didn't know the plot and was on the edge of my seat), and look forward to watching it again on TV and hopefully picking up on some of the elements I didn't completely get first time around. I must agree with you about that dark side to Stewart, such a compelling actor, and also that both he and Novak are excellent, as well as Bel Geddes as Midge. One of the scenes that really sticks in my mind is the one where Midge goes to visit Scottie in hospital and he doesn't even know she is there.

  22. This was a great essay to kick off the Vertigo month.

    I'm always struck by the sadness of Stewart's characters, especially the haunted look in his eyes.

    We've all read or know someone who has been the subject of a stalker or someone obsessive, and it's terrifying, but Stewart's character isn't scary, just so sad. It's a monumental acting feat on his part in a key work of 20th century art.

  23. I'm a little late to the start of this amazing event...

    Wonderful, insightful essay into one of the most bizarre and beautiful films ever made. It is not my favorite Hitchcock film, but it is certainly deserving of all the praise it receives.

  24. You're not the only one, Jill, who's late to this party, but even if I come in on two wheels and only bring a bag of popcorn to share, I'm glad I came! This remarkable essay is the perfect beginning for this series. Thanks to all the contributors. Can't wait to see what's next--gee, isn't that what they call suspense? ;-)
    Warmly, Kay